From Crenshaw to Hartsville: Race, Poverty, and Education Reform

In order to avoid the existential hell known as I-85 where morning commuters creep along bug-like in a daily Kafkan nightmare, I take winding backroads through the Upstate of South Carolina to my university.

Recently, I noticed a real estate sign advertising a new neighborhood with an added bright yellow sign above signaling, “RIVERSIDE SCHOOLS.”

Children in this housing development will attend, eventually, Riverside High, which is ranked 13th lowest of 237 SC high schools in the 2014 Poverty Index, has Excellent/Excellent ratings on the 2014 SC report card, and tests only 51/341 students on subsidized meals and 25/341 with limited English proficiency:

Riverside HS PI 2014

Riverside HS 2014 report card 1Among four other comparable high schools in the state, they all are rated Excellent:

Riverside HS schools like ours 2014Having placed student teachers at Riverside High, and knowing faculty there, I can attest that this is a wonderful school, and students are both supported and challenged.

The real estate sign struck me especially since I had viewed two new educational documentaries: Crenshaw, a film by activist Lena Jackson on the Los Angeles school, and 180 Days: Hartsville, focusing on two schools—Thornwell School for the Arts and West Hartsville Elementary School—along the infamous I-95 Corridor of Shame in my home state of SC.

While nearly 2500 miles apart and politically/culturally worlds apart, Los Angeles and Hartsville reflect powerful narratives about the intersections of race, poverty, and education reform. As well, they offer nuance to those intersections since Creshaw High is high-poverty, majority-minority in an urban setting while Hartsville’s elementary schools are high-poverty, majority-minorty in the rural South.

Before discussing each documentary separately, let me highlight what they share as entry points into reconsidering race, poverty, and education reform:

  • Public schools both serve and reflect the communities within which they sit.
  • Race and poverty significantly impact academic achievement, and thus, when schools, teachers, and students are labeled, ranked, and judged by test scores, high-poverty and majority-minority schools are disproportionately identified as “failing.”
  • Political leadership often expresses support for education and public schools, but implements policies that appear tone deaf to the communities they represent.
  • Education reform advocates ignore the failure of popular policies.
  • Demands of effort and not embracing excuses dominate political and educational rhetoric (despite ample evidence that effort is trumped by racism/classism).
  • Parents, students, and teachers are often passionate about education, regardless of economic status or race.

Crenshaw: Disenfranchising through Take Over Strategies

Crenshaw is, as David B. Cohen explains, a “cautionary tale” about school take overs narrowly and education reform built on accountability broadly.

Jackson does a wonderful job in 20 minutes introducing viewers to the students, parents, and teachers whose lives and learning/teaching are dramatically disrupted by converting Crenshaw High into a magnet school as part of a take over plan.

This film is an excellent introduction to how so-called good intentions of political education reform is not only insufficient, but also harmful.

The take over of Crenshaw disenfranchises the students, parents, and teachers highlighted in the documentary and exposes that political leadership (school board and Superintendent John Deasy) often fails to be culturally sensitive or appropriately responsive to the needs of the people they serve.

Ultimately, as in New Orleans, Crenshaw and the take over represent a failure to identify the sources of entrenched problems, to listen to the people whose lives are being impacted by policy, and to be open to alternative views of both problems and solutions.

Crenshaw High is now and has been for decades a reflection of deep and serious social inequity fueled by racism, classism, and an unresponsive political establishment.

Changing a school’s name, firing the adults who have dedicated their lives to students, and ignoring the parents of those students—these appear to be the worst possible actions available, and regretfully, what more and more political leaders seem determined to do.

Hartsville: It’s All about the Tests (I Mean, Children)

As a life-long resident of and career-long educator in SC, I have lived and witnessed the historical and lingering racism and poverty that scar our state and our schools.

In my education foundations and educational documentary courses, I show Corridor of Shame, and we examine issues related to pockets of poverty across SC and school funding.

I also highlight how problematic Corridor is as a documentary since it depends on maudlin music and slow-motion shots of children looking forlorn. The inequity along I-95 in SC needs no emotional appeal; the conditions are inexcusable, and any reasonable person can see that.

In that context, I was nervous about 180 Days: Hartsville—although I do trust and respect co-producer Sam Chaltain and feel that the documentary does offer a much more complex portrayal of education reform, race, and poverty in SC than Corridor.

Broadly, depending on how audiences interpret the narratives of the film, 180 Days: Hartsville challenges the effectiveness of accountability-based reform that focuses on in-school policies only.

That “depending,” however, is huge.

Yes, the two schools and the central family highlighted are wonderful and accurate representations of the huge challenges of public schools in a high-poverty community.

I find the educators, parents, and students extremely compelling and genuine—a tribute to the care taken with the film.

There are also moments that need to be paused, digested carefully: the burdens of working minimum-wage jobs, the pressures of being a child living in poverty and trying to succeed in school, the passion and compassion of educators, and the determination of a parent working two jobs and raising two children alone.

Statistics flashed on the screen and audio/video snippets of political rhetoric against cuts to education funding—these also demand greater critical consideration.

But I am left deeply concerned that too many viewers will not respond as I did to the relentless influence of testing the film captures throughout—because the film is also punctuated with adults expressing a “no excuses” mentality, again with the best intentions.

These educators are supportive and positive, but those qualities cannot temper the weight of testing that has become the end-all, be-all of public schooling—especially for our high-poverty, majority-minority schools.

Viewers watch a highly dedicated principal at Thornwell School for the Arts giving pep talks to entire grade levels of students as well as students preparing to take MAP tests, computerized commercial programs that give detailed and nearly immediate feedback and claim to be strongly correlated with high-stakes state testing.

Viewers also watch as students’ names are moved on a board in front of those students so that each child is listed under her/his status according to the tests.

The money and time spent on MAP and the public labeling of students—not to mention, Where are the arts?—should prompt us all to end the madness that is high-stakes accountability. But, again, I fear many viewers found the story compelling because the educators and students were working so hard, and are characterized as being uniquely successful.

And it is at that last point we must pause.

First, schools that are outliers are not evidence of any need for policy, or for any standard by which to judge all schools. Outliers are outliers for a reason.

But, as well, consider Thornwell School for the Arts 2014 school report card:

Thornwell 2014 report card

And how does Thornwell School for the Arts look against comparable schools across SC?:

Thornwell schools like ours 2014

While the film suggests nearly “miracle” outcomes, the school, in fact, continues to struggle under the burdens of poverty and race; as the classifications above show, the school is typical of schools with similar students.

The film highlights only one of the two ways in which SC evaluates schools—the annual state report card that has been in use for most of SC’s decades of accountability and the federal accountability report (in 2014, Thornwell School for the Arts received a B/86.7 and West Hartsville Elementary, a B/81.1).

Without context, and careful analysis of what data are being portrayed along with why and how (former Superintendent Mick Zais [R] manipulated the federal accountability reports in order to criss-cross the state to “prove” poverty doesn’t matter, for example), viewers are apt to fall under the impression that schools struggling against poverty just need to demand more from educators and children.

However, for me, the key scene is when the principal at West Hartsville Elementary must confront the tremendously complex issues surrounding Rashon, ones that are often outside the ability of the school or even his mother to control.

180 Days: Hartsville is a story of place. It is, like Crenshaw, a cautionary tale, but I suspect one easily misinterpreted.

I think the intent behind this film is to offer Hartsville as a model for education reform addressing race and poverty because the efforts of the educators and students are remarkable and community business has committed to addressing the complex elements of poverty in the area and schools.

However, the film actually reveals that accountability has failed SC and the entire U.S.

How?

The relentless and dehumanizing focus on data—as if people are somehow not involved.

Ultimately what connects Crenshaw in Los Angeles to two elementary schools in SC is this mostly ignored fact: political rhetoric and tone-deaf education policy are not curative but part of the disease.

Once again, there are no miracles—but there are very real and very harmful consequences to demanding the impossible from schools, educators, parents, and children who are ultimately the victims of the racism and poverty political leaders refuse to acknowledge or erase.

For Additional Reading

What If Education Reform Got It All Wrong in the First Place?, Bill Raden

If there is a lesson in evidence-based research for California policymakers, say Orfield and Gandara, it is that there are limitations to what even the most inspired teachers alone can achieve in a society plagued with inequities.

“I studied a really rich district in Massachusetts,” Orfield noted, “and the kids from the housing projects in the city were just hugely behind when they arrived at school. The schools actually made as much progress each year as the [wealthier] kids did, but the gap never closed at all. So the schools were doing their job, but society wasn’t.”

“I always say, if money doesn’t matter, then why is it that people who have money send their kids to schools that have many, many more resources?” Gandara adds. “I think fundamentally the problem is that other developed nations have social systems that support families and children in a variety of ways: with childcare, with good health care, with recreational opportunities—with lots of things that support healthy development. We have dumped it all on the schools and said, ‘We’re really not going to provide any of these services. You deal with it, schools.’”

No Child Left Behind fails to work ‘miracles,’ spurs cheating

Conservative Talking Points Wrong for SC Education

South Carolina and Education Reform: A Reader

2014 NCUEA Fall Conference: Thirty Years of Accountability Deserves an F

Unpacking Education and Teacher Impact

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

[UPDATED] Disaster Capitalism (almost) Comes to Little Rock

UPDATE: BREAKING: School privatization bill pulled for this session

***

The next phase in education reform appears to be take over legislation and policy (in other words, disaster capitalism).

Next in the bull’s eye is Little Rock, Arkansas:

The problem is that take over strategies have been destructive, not helpful—as I have detailed:

Finally, Nelsen builds to the most troubling conservative option: closing, as Nelsen’s curious word choice identifies, “[p]oor schools” and adopting state take-over practices such as the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD). Setting aside that Nelsen is associating state government take-over as conservative while opening with a nod toward “small government,” endorsing the ASD is deeply flawed. Nelsen claims inaccurately: “The results in Tennessee are impressive so far. Students have posted double-digit gains in math, science and literacy — outpacing improvements in other public schools”—when actually, like charter schools in general, the ASD has not performed much different than public schools, according to a 2014 analysis:

“My analysis suggests that ASD schools aren’t doing significantly better in terms of student growth than they were before state takeover. In fact, in many cases the schools’ pre-takeover growth outperformed the ASD. These findings have significant implications for the future of the ASD, how we should move forward with continued takeovers, and for future turn-around efforts in general.”

From Tennessee to New Orleans to Los Angeles, claims of successful take-over strategies have been discredited, but those take-overs have resulted mostly in disenfranchised children and communities while providing political capital for advocates.

For Further Reading

NPR Whitewashes Charter Schools and Disaster Capitalism in New Orleans

Endgame: Disaster Capitalism, New Orleans, and the Charter Scam

Disaster Capitalism and Charter Schools: Revisiting New Orleans Post-Katrina

Post-Katrina New Orleans: Disatser Capitalism Feeds on Poverty and Racism

Recommended: Educational Documentaries

Little Rock Central: 50 Years Later

These documentaries often soar because of the people allowed to speak for themselves. This excellent HBO film opens with Minnijean Brown Trickey returning to Little Rock Central High, and then it never fails to deliver throughout. I would rate this a must-see among the selections in this course. The film confronts Brown v. Board, separate and unequal, schools within schools, the return of segregation (especially in the South), and the lingering tensions between the ideal and reality of racial harmony. Related pieces on the rise of the segregated South and education reform in the New Jim Crow Era are recommended. Alexander’s The New Jim Crow is also an excellent connection.

Current Education Reform Perpetuating, Not Curbing, Inequity

To Catch a Cheat: More on the Pearson Problem as Our Problem

“Cheating by test takers is becoming more common in the United States and throughout the world,” explains T.J. Bliss, adding:

In the past year, multiple news agencies have reported several instances of cheating on high-stakes tests. Recently, news broke that doctors in a variety of specialties had cheated to pass certification exams (Zamost, Griffen, & Ansari, 2012). In another instance, high school students were arrested and charged with misdemeanors and felonies for cheating on the SAT (Anderson, 2011). At a university in Florida, over 200 students admitted to cheating on a midterm exam when faced with accusations based on statistical evidence (Good, 2010).

So what are teachers to do? Bliss offers evidence-based solutions:

There are many ways to detect cheating, some more useful and reliable than others (Cizek, 1999). Proctors and invigilators can walk the exam room and directly observe some forms of cheating, like answer copying. This method will not work, though, if a person cheats by gaining pre-knowledge of exam items (Good, 2010), is taking the exam for someone else (Anderson, 2011), or is trying to memorize items to share with others (Zamost et al. 2012). Some cheating is detected through whistle-blowers, manual comparison of answer and seating charts, and other qualitative approaches (Cizek, 2006). However, in both large-scale and classroom testing situations, statistical approaches have also been used to identify suspected cheaters. Such methods have been successfully utilized to detect several different kinds of cheating, including answer copying, collusion, pre-knowledge, and attempts to memorize items.

And why the increased cheating? It seems legislation, competition, and technology have roles in that:

With the passage of legislation requiring increased school accountability (e.g. No Child Left Behind Act, 2001) and increased compet[ti]iveness for jobs requiring certification (United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2010-2011) the stakes for passing standardized and licensure exams have increased dramatically. At the same time, technologies to enable cheating have also increased. For instance, some examinees have begun using smart phones, digital recorders, and other personal electronic devices to cheat during exams. Fortunately, the advent of new methods for administering exams (like Computer Adaptive Testing) and analyzing test results (like Item Response Theory) have led to the development of more complex and sensitive statistical methods to detect cheating.

For classroom teachers seeking ways to prevent cheating and catch students who cheat, the Internet offers a nearly endless supply of strategies:

To be honest, I could continue that list for dozens and dozens of bullets, all of which have about the same strategies.

How many of us as classroom teachers at all grade levels have given traditional tests such as multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank, matching, etc., formats? How many of us have implemented some or many of the cheating prevention strategies commonly taught in methods courses such as creating several versions of the tests, asking students to cover their work, re-arranging desks and seating assignments, walking around the room during the tests?

And how many of us are outraged at Pearson and other testing corporations for monitoring social media in order to detect cheating and thus to protect the credibility of their product (as any business would do in a consumer society)?

How many of us as classroom teachers are rightfully angry about the misuse of value-added methods (VAM) for teacher evaluation and pay, and then hold our students accountable for tests in traditional formats in our classes?

How many of us help select, purchase, and then implement commercial programs for teaching and assessing our students?

I teach and co-teach several methods courses for candidates seeking certification to teach in high school. As a critical educator, my classes go something like this: For Topic A, here is what traditional/progressive educators say you should do, but here is what critical educators suggest.

Yes, this is a bit tedious, for me and, I suppose, my students.

In the methods course I co-teach, I am responsible for assessment, so the topics of tests and cheating are addressed.

In order to help my future teachers develop a critical lens, we often talk about their experiences with assessment and cheating while college students—by focusing on writing essays and being monitored for plagiarism.

Most of these students are familiar with directly or indirectly faculty using TurnItIn.com to evaluate plagiarism in student essays. And like most of the faculty, my students see nothing problematic about using that technology both to discourage and detect cheating.

As high-achieving students, my students tend to be harsh about cheating—until we start investigating their own behavior as students. Until we start unpacking what counts as cheating (for example, TUrnItIn.com allows each professor to manipulate the threshold for plagiarism, thus changing what counts as plagiarism from course to course).

Is sharing homework cheating? Is collaborating while writing an essay cheating? Is peer-editing an essay cheating?

And then we go further by asking why students cheat, and considering why students plagiarize.

Certainly all college students know not to plagiarize.

My larger point is about the conditions created in the classroom that foster cheating.

I explain to my students why I don’t give grades and don’t use traditional tests. My students submit multiple drafts of all essays and often spend a good deal of time in class drafting with me there to help.

I also detail how I incorporate a group midterm exam in my foundations of education course, the testing format being both small-group and whole class discussion with a focus on learning being a social construct.

I have consciously over 30-plus years sought ways to end the sort of testing culture that fosters cheating and instead implemented approaches to assessment that encourage full engagement that makes cheating (typically) not even an option.

Unable to avoid my English teacher Self, I tend to add that in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a powerful theme addresses the consequences of “reduced circumstances”; the main character Offred/June, who appears to be a decent person before the world crumbles, expresses murderous cravings—fantasizing about stabbing someone with a knitting needle and feeling the blood run warm over her hand.

This dystopian novel forces readers to consider the sources of the violent urges—are they inherent in Offred/June or prompted by her reduced circumstances?

That same sort of critical inspection must be a part of both the wider education reform movement and our own classrooms.

Under high-stakes accountability, why the cheating scandals in Atlanta, DC, and elsewhere?

But also, why are students cheating in our classes?

Why do students not read assigned works? Why do students claim they hate to read?

As teachers and public school advocates, to maintain our gaze only on outcomes is to miss the reasons for those outcomes, and to avoid our own culpability.

And then we come back to Pearson and the commercial boom connected directly to the accountability era.

A Software & Information Industry Association report reveals, “testing and assessment products–which include software, digital content and related digital services–now make up the largest single category of educational technology sales,” increasing by 57% since 2012-2013:

testing and assessment 57 percent

That tax-payer’s cash grab combined with what Anthony Cody calls “necessary surveillance” for national high-stakes testing is a cancer on the educational body—one that must be not only cured, but also eradicated and then prevented.

However, we must also admit that this cancer is the result of cancer-causing behavior.

As teachers and public education advocates, we must continue to fight the profits and surveillance of Pearson and other commercial interests, but we also must face our own bad habits.

While we raise our voices against misguided and harmful policy (including taking a professional and political stance), we should practice what we preach by creating classrooms that reflect our obligations and commitments.

So I completely agree when Peter Greene makes this pointed and accurate claim connected to Pearson: “You know what kind of test need this sort of extreme security? A crappy one.”

I also support Jersey Jazzman concluding:

But even more than that: a good teacher gives assessments that are largely cheat-proof. So if the PARCC people really think their exam can be gamed by students over social media, they are admitting they have created an inferior product. …

Further: if the assessment is any good, and is really measuring higher-order thinking, it likely can’t be gamed. It’s easy to cheat on a multiple choice exam; it’s much harder to cheat on a chemistry lab. And it’s nearly impossible to cheat on a choir concert, or a personal response to a novel, or number line manipulative. …

But if the PARCC is so vulnerable that a tweet by a student after the test compromises the entire exam, it must be useless — particularly as a measure of student learning.

However, I feel obligated to raise a concurrent point related to the opening of this post: If our own assessment practices need the amount of surveillance and diligence detailed for preventing cheating and catching cheaters, there is ample evidence some pretty suspect testing is happening in our classrooms as well.

Let’s end the tyranny of high-stakes standardized testing that has spawned Pearson et al., but let’s make sure we address that tyranny in our own practice as well.

For Further Reading

Who’s Cheating Whom?, Alfie Kohn

Email to My Students: “the luxury of being thankful”

Grades Fail Student Engagement with Learning

“Students Today…”: On Writing, Plagiarism, and Teaching

De-Testing and De-Grading Schools: Authentic Alternatives to Accountability and Standardization, Bower, Joe / Thomas, P.L. (eds.)

The Fatal Flaw of Teacher Education: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

The Problem with Pearson (and Hyperbole)

Passive Progressivism

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

The State (Columbia, SC): Hartsville documentary reminds us of failures of SC education ‘reform’ efforts

[provided below with hyperlinks]

South Carolina has contributed significantly to the thirty-plus years of education accountability begun under President Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s, including former Governor and Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s leadership as well as the high-profile court case over school funding detailed in the documentary Corridor of Shame.

On March 19, PBS turns the education reform spotlight on Hartsville, as co-producer Sam Chaltain explains for The New York Times:

[I]n 2011, …[Hartsville] announced a five-year plan to transform its elementary schools. It partnered with Yale University’s School Development Program, which helps schools identify and meet the developmental needs of children. It began to evaluate its schools by a broader set of measurements – including the number of disciplinary referrals a bus driver had to write each morning. And it started to coordinate its social services to ensure a more equitable set of support structures for Hartsville’s poorest families.

This documentary will again raise issues about the powerful intersection of poverty, race, and education while also offering an opportunity for viewers in SC and across the U.S to evaluate the current commitments to accountability-based reform.

SC is now poised with the in-school transition created by the Common Core debate and the election of the new state Superintendent, Molly Spearman, who appears to have begun with a fresh and positive tone, to change not only how we view our education system but also what we do in the name of reform.

Setting aside partisan politics and accepting that a great deal of education reform in the state has been motivated by the best intensions, what do we now know about our major commitments to policy?

SC has like most states across the U.S. worked through several versions of standards and high-stakes tests, linking those tests to accountability for schools, students, and teachers. That we are set once again to go down the exact same path with the exact same promises that haven’t come to fruition, we should consider that the problem is not about standards and testing. In fact, there is no correlation over the past thirty years between the presence or quality of standards and student achievement or educational equity.

The charter school movement in SC has strong proponents, but we must also admit that, again as we see across the country, charter schools perform about the same as public school, including problems such as re-segregation.

Broadly, the primary list of education reform commitments—teacher evaluations liked to test scores, 3rd-grade retention based on reading tests, for example—has proven ineffective not only in SC but also throughout the U.S.

And this may be why the documentary on Hartsville is so important.

The educational problems of Hartsville are not new to our state; they are the exact reasons high-poverty and majority-minority schools and districts sued the state over funding.

Accountability, standards, testing, charter schools, and the like have not erased the shame of the I-95 corridor, but those commitments have shuffled a tremendous number of students and funding that could have been better served and used to confront what the Hartsville community appears to accept, as Chaltain explains:

Across America, more than 16 million children — slightly more than one in five — now live in poverty. And in communities like Hartsville, the need for a healthier social ecosystem is acute….

This clear connection between the percentage of children living in poverty and a school’s overall ranking is not just a cause for concern. It is also an opportunity to think more holistically about the needs of children.

Since No Child Left Behind, publisher Pearson has made 8 billion dollars annually on education reform, 4 billion of that in the U.S.

That investment, we must also admit, has not paid off for our children, our communities, or our state. If it had, we would not now be creating once again new standards and tests.

SC is a vivid example of both the importance of education and the inability of education alone to change the corrosive influence of poverty and racism.

Hartsville may be a call for expanding education reform beyond the walls of the school, but it is also a call for political leadership to seek new policies while admitting the accountability era has failed.

I Swear: On “Grit,” Adult Hypocrisy, and Privilege

I’m gonna cuss on the mic tonight.
“Rockin’ the Suburbs,” Ben Folds

My parents taught me that if you swear, it’s a sign of a poor vocabulary.
If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.
Dean Smith

Few things have been more important to me than discovering George Carlin during my teens years in the 1970s. Soon to follow was Richard Pryor.

Profanity and the art of crafting humor are easily the foundations for my life of words as avid reader and writer.

And yes, I swear.

But in both Carlin and Pryor I learned something far more important than how to swear in ways that gained me credibility among my peers (despite my frail nerdom); I had the curtain pulled back on adult authority—the hypocrisy of the “do as I say, not as I do” adult world.

Carlin and Pryor were my first critical teachers.

I grew up in a rural Southern town and school system where adults demanded children respect authority and tradition while behaving in ways that were inexcusable—racial slurs, profanity, drinking, smoking, you name it.

This was particularly pronounced among the coaches in the public schools.

Years after I graduated, I returned to that school to teach. A sophomore came into my class one day, stunned that the head football coach/athletic director/assistant principal had just given the student demerits for swearing—and had yelled profanities at the student during the issuing of those demerits.

So as I have noted before about Coach K and my fandom for Duke University basketball, I have a great deal of trouble with the berating, profane coach demanding character and discipline from his/her players—often children, teens, and young adults.

And we live in a world still where a coach launches into a profane tirade to reprimand his player for lacking class and a white, privileged male moralizes cluelessly, perched not on his own morality but his privilege (see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig’s Poor People Don’t Need Better Social Norms. They Need Better Social Policies).

When Dean Smith recently passed away, the coverage did highlight Smith’s unique convictions as a coach—including that he did not use profanity, but also that he led a social activist life that was often ignored.

But let’s be clear that Smith’s convictions are about not just talking the talk, but walking the walk: “If I expect my players to be disciplined, then I have to be, too.”

So when I came across a profile of Angela Duckworth, who is the central person in the “grit” phenomenon mostly aimed at impoverished and minority children, I had the same reaction to some details as I have when Coach K screams profanities on the sidelines, when the Vanderbilt coach lost it, and when the privileged make moral demands of the impoverished—and as I noted above, my problem is not the profanity, but the hypocrisy.

Early in the profile of Duckworth, we learn:

Assistant Professor of Psychology Angela Duckworth Gr’06 has another explanation. Before she entered graduate school at Penn in 2002 she spent five years teaching math and science in poor urban neighborhoods across the United States. In that time she concluded that the failure of students to acquire basic skills was not attributable to the difficulty of the material, or to a lack of intelligence, or indeed to any of the factors mentioned above. Her intuition told her that the real problem was character [emphasis added].

“Grit” research claims that some people are successful and others are not because of something like resiliency, which is a subset of the larger character issue.

However, later in the profile, we also discover:

Duckworth jokes that the job-hopping she did in her twenties was a case study in “how not to be gritty,” but it seems more a function of the intensity and dynamism of her personality. In the course of reporting this article I heard colleagues call Duckworth the most extroverted person, the quickest learner, and the fastest thinker (and talker) they’d ever met.

On the day I visited she had a half-dozen bubble gum containers on her desk, suggesting an atmosphere of restless activity and a need to replenish the saliva that’s lost through such rapid-fire speech. She also uses expletives in a way that might impress even high-powered cursers like Rahm Emanuel. In the course of a 90-minute conversation she called a principal she knew “an asshole,” described the opinion of a leading education foundation as “fucking idiotic,” and did a spot-on impression of a teenager with attitude when explaining the challenge of conducting experiments with adolescents: “When you pay adults they always work harder but sometimes in schools when I’ve done experiments with monetary incentives there’s this like adolescent ‘fuck you’ response. They’ll be like ‘Oh, you really want me to do well on this test? Fuck you, I’m going to do exactly the opposite.’”

So when I Tweeted this, I found out that others immediately assumed I was concerned about Duckworth’s profanity.

Again, I swear. Quite a lot.

But the issue with the above is that I see in Duckworth more evidence of what William Deresiewicz confronts in Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League and his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life:

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege [emphasis added], heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

Privilege and success are dangerous combinations:

Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocraticthe development of expertiseand everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms [emphasis added].

Such as identifying, measuring, and labeling children by their “grit”? A technocratic view of the world that ignores inequity, privilege?

And thus, I fear that the “grit” narrative as a veneer for privilege is part of the problem noted by Deresiewicz: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

There is an arrogance, a self-righteousness, a contempt for others—carried by the flippancy of profanity—that make me convinced that, yes, “grit” is a veneer for privilege, a way to reduce marginalized people through a deficit view.

To be pointed, I am deeply concerned about the racism and classism beneath those embracing and endorsing “grit”—and Duckworth’s mockery of adolescents suggests a lack of awareness that reinforces my concern.

The formula: I worked hard and succeeded. You are struggling so it must be you aren’t working hard enough!

So the missionary zeal bothers me:

For Duckworth, however, the challenge of her research question is part of its appeal. She spent the first decade of her professional life unsure of how to apply her abundant talent. Now she no longer has any doubts. “I have complete conviction that this is an incredibly important scientific question,” she says. “If we can figure out the science of behavior and behavior change, if we can figure out what is motivation and how to motivate people, what is frustration and how do we manage it, what is temptation and why do people succumb to it—that to me would be akin to the semiconductor.”

The facts refuting that formula bother me even more: Educational attainment (a clear marker for effort) is often significantly trumped by race and class.

If we accept that “grit” includes “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” (such as achieving more education), I find the above details about Duckworth more evidence of the adult hypocrisy I experienced while growing up. Is her cavalier attitude and profanity any different than the attitude she is condemning among teens?

So my concerns are not personal, or personal attacks—because Duckworth is certainly not alone in her good intentions behind “grit” research or practices.

And my concerns are grounded in Paul Gorski’s scholarship in which he shares his own self-reflection, as have I, as I continue to do. Gorski explains:

Unfortunately, my experience and a growing body of scholarship on intercultural education and related fields (such as multicultural education, intercultural communication, anti-bias education, and so on) reveal a troubling trend: despite overwhelmingly good intentions, most of what passes for intercultural education practice, particularly in the US, accentuates rather than undermines existing social and political hierarchies (Aikman 1997; Diaz-Rico 1998; Gorski 2006; Hidalgo, Chávez-Chávez, and Ramage 1996; Jackson 2003; Lustig 1997; Nieto 2000, 1995; Schick and St. Denis 2005; Sleeter 1991; Ulichny 1996). (p. 516)

Further, I remain guided in my criticism of “grit” by Gorski’s questions:

The questions are plenty: do we advocate and practice intercultural education so long as it does not disturb the existing sociopolitical order?; so long as it does not require us to problematize our own privilege?; so long as we can celebrate diversity, meanwhile excusing ourselves from the messy work of social reconstruction?

Can we practice an intercultural education that does not insist first and foremost on social reconstruction for equity and justice without rendering ourselves complicit to existing inequity and injustice? In other words, if we are not battling explicitly against the prevailing social order with intercultural education, are we not, by inaction, supporting it?

Such questions cannot be answered through a simple review of teaching and learning theory or an assessment of educational programs. Instead, they oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work. Because the most destructive thing we can do is to disenfranchise people in the name of intercultural education. (p. 516)

I am not, then, being a petty prude. (Want to listen to my CAKE or Ben Folds/Five mix CDs?)

I am not stooping to ad hominem, and this has nothing to do with who I like or dislike (as I don’t know Duckworth, and the other key “grit” advocates). I suspect, actually, they are good and decent people dedicated to doing the right thing.

This is about the hypocrisy of adult demands aided by the technocratic use of “grit” as a veneer for privilege.

I remain convinced that the appeal of the “grit” narrative is mostly a failure to do what Gorski notes above: “Such questions…oblige all of us who would call ourselves intercultural educators to re-examine the philosophies, motivations, and world views that underlie our consciousnesses and work.”

So when an award-winning researcher tells me poor and minority children simply lack “grit” or a New York Times pundit explains the moral shortcomings of the poor, I hear Ben Folds singing, “Let me tell y’all what it’s like/ Being male, middle class and white/ It’s a bitch”—except Folds in his profanity is being satirical and his work is mostly harmless entertainment.

The Problem with Pearson (and Hyperbole)

The education reform debate—one often derailed by both the tone taken and then the debate about that tone (and not the issues)—appears determined to have an Evil Person (or Evil Corporation) to slay.

There was Michelle Rhee (whose Time cover really was just begging for it), and then Bill Gates. But to be honest, the list of candidates for Evil Person has been pretty long.

If you mention a person directly, you are immediately discounted as using ad hominem (although in many if not most of those cases, legitimate issues have been raised about expertise, experience, and even intentions—and not ad hominem at all).

Now, Pearson has entered the picture and prompted a new round (and maybe a new level) of hyperbole.

Data security about children/students, surveillance of Twitter and social media—Pearson has become the manifestation of Big Brother for those skeptical of technology and high-stakes testing.

To that, I’d say that we can have a reasonable debate about whether the comparison is hyperbole or an apt literary analogy, but the larger point I’d like to make is that in ether the debate or the comparison, we are likely missing the important issue.

Pearson has earned 8 billion—4 billion in the U.S.—in annual sales as a consequence of the accountability policies adopted by those elected to office within a democratic process.

I’m sorry to have to note this fact, but Pearson is not a Evil Demigod or some such.

Pearson and its profits are a consequence of very clear and consistent decisions by people in power and the people who put them in power.

Pearson is the logical conclusion of democracy and capitalism—not some totalitarian monster.

When you look at the Pearson phenomenon, and its relationship with education policy and the drain on tax dollars, you must admit this: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

And what hath we wrought?

If Pearson makes you angry, be sure to consider just who is to blame.